- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- And then, in an instant, it was over.
All of it. The booming foghorn, the "whooo!" of a Bruins goal, the swagger that enabled you to strut around town bragging that your team is the NHL champion.
Technically, the Boston Bruins remain proprietors of Lord Stanley's hardware until they officially relinquish their title to the eventual 2012 NHL winner.
But that's akin to trying to enjoy your oceanfront digs knowing full well the eviction notice is in the mail. Suddenly, the view isn't quite so mesmerizing.
There will be no hockey repeat in Boston; heck, there won't even be a second-round series.
It was a shocking and abrupt end to a competitive, tense, historic series, the first one ever to have all seven games decided by one goal.
Yet as Bruins coach Claude Julien conceded in his somber postgame autopsy, it wasn't that one play that sealed the fate of his hockey team.
There were too many other telltale signs that foreshadowed the Bruins' demise. Let's start with the fact that they lost three -- that's right, three -- games in this series on the Garden ice. And then there were the Bruins' persistent struggles throughout this series to strike first, leaving them mired in an exhausting game of catch-up throughout. Wednesday night's Game 7 was more of the same, with Washington grabbing a 1-0 first-period lead that (temporarily) sucked the air out of the raucous Garden crowd.
Although Julien's boys consistently outshot the Capitals in nearly every game, that statistic, the coach explained, was misleading. Shots are one thing, and scoring chances are quite another. When you tallied those up, said Julien, "There really wasn't that big of a difference."
Many of Boston's shortcomings, including the volume of unsuccessful shots, were eerily similar to last year's magical run. Last season, the Bruins also slogged through the playoffs with an anemic power play. This spring, it was again confoundingly ineffective: 0-for-3 in Game 7, an unfathomable 2-for-23 for the series.
It didn't matter so much during their 2011 Stanley Cup push because Tim Thomas was otherworldly, a goalie with an iridescent sheen. It was folly to bank on Thomas to repeat his Conn Smythe performance of last spring. Even so, Thomas was more than good enough to help his team advance.
But what his teammates encountered was a resolute Washington team that protected its rookie goaltender, Braden Holtby, by repeatedly blocking Bruins' scoring bids; by dominating the faceoffs in this critical final game (with the Bruins hampered by Patrice Bergeron's mysterious "upper body" injury that rendered his invaluable faceoff talents useless); by relying on opportunistic goals from grinders like Ward instead of superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, at one time considered the most dangerous sniper in the NHL, but who, in this series, was relegated to the role of spectator during critical moments.
"It's the foot soldiers," Washington coach Dale Hunter said. "They're the ones; you win the series with them."
He's right. The Bruins lost to a team that played better together, played harder together and, frankly, deserved to win this series. The Bruins know all about foot soldiers. They marched in step with them to the grand prize just one short year ago.
This elimination was not the result of glaring breakdowns or outrageous, unforgivable miscues. There won't be any blame-game nuggets to debate; no "Welker dropped the ball" or "Brady threw it over his wrong shoulder"; no wild pitch by Stanley or passed ball by Gedman.
That doesn't mean the Bruins should be completely exonerated from accepting responsibility for their early exit. Their coach hinted at his displeasure regarding the power play, talking about skilled players having to make the "skilled play" and also "[having] to work to get that puck."
It will be a long offseason for a number of Bruins, among them Milan Lucic, who failed to put his stamp on this series, either as a physical presence or a reliable goal scorer. Lucic's failure to clear the puck from his own end Wednesday night set up the first Washington goal.
"I wish I had an answer for you," Lucic said afterward. "Very disappointing. It's been almost five years since we lost in the first round."
To a man, the weary players admitted it was a long, grueling season, one that came too quickly after the prolonged celebration of hoisting (then hosting) the Stanley Cup. Perhaps they partied too hard, too long.
Perhaps they took for granted that these Game 7s would go their way. Perhaps they leaned on their goaltender too much.
That's the funny thing about winning a championship. Once you set a gold standard, much is expected going forward.
This time, the Bruins simply didn't deliver.
It would have been nice to have Nathan Horton, whose concussion symptoms have left his future murky. It would have helped to have Bergeron at full strength.
But those are excuses, and most of the guys in the locker room with the spoked B knew better than to go that route.
"It's a weird feeling," confessed defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who submitted a superb postseason. "You wonder what time practice is tomorrow, but there is no practice."
"I'd have to say I'm probably in shock," Thomas admitted. "I really believed that we were going to win tonight. I had this deep feeling that this wasn't the end of the road for us."
Repeating as Stanley Cup champion is the exception, not the rule. The last team to do it was the Detroit Red Wings 14 years ago.
Even so, the first-round exit seemed to have caught the Boston Bruins by surprise.
But, in an instant, there was no time left to do anything about it.
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